What Season Is It?

This lavender flower thinks spring has come in December.

This lavender flower thinks spring has come in December.

I’ve noticed in the past several weeks that many of my fellow gardeners across the country are reporting unusual activity in their gardens for this time of the year. On Christmas Eve I decided to check my Texas garden to see if anything odd was happening. To my surprise I was able to take photos of blooms on my lavender and buds on my daffodils. Just this morning a friend who gardens in Massachusetts posted a photo of salad greens she had harvested this morning. What’s going on?

Fall weather across North America has been unusually turbulent. We have seen strong storm systems sweep across the continent. The rapid shifts from cold to warm, overcast to sunny have unexpectedly triggered activity in our garden plants. This is why spring-like growth has appeared. Why?

Plants use a variety of environmental phenomena to tell when the season shifts from fall to winter to spring. It varies from plant to plant but some combination of total sunlight during the day, daytime temperatures, and rainfall contain the clues they use to know when to drop leaves in fall, expand their root system in winter, and break into flowers in spring. Plant breeders take advantage of these clues to force bulbs and other spring-flowering plants to break into bloom in time for Christmas. The right combination of light and dark is all that it takes to make this happen.

Another out-of-season herb, this Thai basil looks lovely now but will crumple at the first frost.

Another out-of-season herb, this Thai basil looks lovely now but will crumple at the first frost.

Now back to what is happening in our gardens. When the signals get mixed up or delivered in an unexpected way (e.g. heavy rains during a normally dry period) the plants shift gears as if the season has really changed. This is why my lavender is blooming in December.

So what can we do? Well, the short answer is nothing. Unseasonable buds in December will soon be cut short by freezing temperatures reasserting themselves in January. Eventually the wild weather will return to its normal pattern, winter will pass, and true spring will come at the right time in March. Mother Nature may sometimes get a little crazy but eventually it returns to its sedate, predictable patterns.


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